A trip to the pub is a quintessentially British experience, and if you’re a beer snob like me, you’ll insist on drinking real ale. The term “real ale” is reserved for beer that’s brewed using traditional ingredients and secondary fermentation.
“Traditional ingredients” means there are no artificial clarificants, preservatives, or other additives. “Secondary fermentation” means the yeast is still alive in the cask, so that fermentation continues, providing a fuller, fresher taste. Don’t worry about getting the microscopic little guys in your glass, because the yeast settles to the bottom and never comes out of the tap. Because they’re still fermenting in the cask, such beers are often called “cask conditioned” or simply “cask” ales.
The British take their beer so seriously that they have a full-time lobbying organization to ensure real ales don’t disappear under the onslaught of tasteless lagers. The Campaign for Real Ale is a national organization that promotes the brewing, selling, and drinking of real ales. They support traditional pubs too, on the basis that they’re an important aspect of British culture and need to be preserved in the days of theme pubs, big chains, and plasma screen televisions.
One of CAMRA’s campaigns is for an honest pour. A pint glass is only a full pint if the contents come to the bottom of the lip. While this makes it a little hard to carry back to the table without sloshing it on the ground, you will be getting what you paid for. Some people take a sip before leaving the bar, but a real Englishman can carry a three or four pints at the same time through a crowded pub without spilling a drop. Legally, up to 5 percent of the glass can be head, so don’t threaten to sue if you see a bit of white at the top.
CAMRA sponsors real ale festivals across the U.K. These can be a great way to sample lots of different styles. Their website has an up-to-date calendar.
While constant vigilance is the price of good drinking, traditional brewing is actually enjoying a heyday. There are more than 600 breweries in the U.K. brewing an estimated 2,500 ales. Many of these are small, local operations that only distribute their product to a few nearby pubs as a guest ale. Others have national distribution.
Another important organization is Cask Marque, a body that reviews how pubs serve their cask ales, rating them on variety, serving temperature, and overall quality. Those that get high marks are awarded a Cask Marque sticker on their window, shown here. You can rest assured that within there are quality ales served the proper way.
If you’re headed to England, Scotland, or Wales, the folks over at Real Ale Pubs have done your homework for you and have made an extensive list of pubs serving a variety of real ales. If the article I did on gastropubs whet your appetite, then check out the site Dining Pubs, which lists not only gastropubs, but pubs that serve more traditional yet still excellent fare.